(Story reprinted from legacy, FAU's alumni magazine)
Entering the Neutral Buoyancy Lab pool, Dr. Steven Swanson ’86 braces himself for another demanding training session in space walking. An astronaut since 1998, Swanson is suited up and ready to begin the day’s rigorous exercises in the 40-foot-deep pool at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Considered to be the world’s largest indoor pool, the lab is a frequently visited venue for astronauts because it so accurately simulates the effects of weightlessness. Because every hour spent walking in space requires seven hours of training in the lab pool, Swanson is no stranger to its waters, challenges and potential dangers. Prepared for a long underwater workout, he dives in.
The notion of spaceflight had always grabbed Swanson’s imagination, but to actually be part of the program is more than a quest for adventure. Training is serious business, requiring physical and mental stamina and spanning a variety of areas from practice in cabin crew communication processes to preparedness exercises in water and wilderness survival. For Swanson, a licensed pilot, honing his proficiency in the air requires regular flight missions on a T-38 military jet. The drills on these high performance two-seaters help Swanson get used to ascents, air traffic control communication and G-forces. In addition, all astronauts attend numerous orientation sessions, tours and scientific briefings. Swanson, with an undergraduate degree from the University of Colorado in engineering physics, a master’s degree in applied science from FAU, and a doctorate in computer science from Texas A&M University, is well qualified to handle the technical material and its applications.
As part of mission STS 117, Swanson traveled aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis to the International Space Station on June 8, 2007.
As an American mission specialist, Swanson falls into the civilian category along with doctors, scientists and other engineers. He will join the shuttle’s commander, its pilot and three other specialists for the 12-day mission. It will be the United States’ 20th flight to the manned space station. Their main purpose will be to deliver and permanently attach, with help from a robotic arm, the newest segment of the “Integrated Truss Structure” to the station. Though his calm demeanor does not show it, Swanson is well aware of all he will face, especially considering that the mission will take him on three separate walks in space. “The gains override the risks,” he says simply. For Swanson, more concerned with bringing the space station its truss than with any possible dangers, excitement prevails.
Swanson first started thinking about a career in aerospace while he was a graduate student at FAU. After working at GTE in Phoenix, Arizona, Swanson focused on what mattered most to him professionally and applied for a systems engineer position with NASA. He was hired for the Aircraft Operations Division where he was assigned to the team that designed the Shuttle Training Aircraft. In 1989, he became a flight simulation engineer and his efforts centered on improving the flight simulator’s navigational and control systems. Eleven years later, with numerous NASA awards behind him, Swanson, in a dramatic change of course, applied to the astronaut candidate program. It is not surprising that considering his competency as a flight engineer, educational background and skills as a pilot, Swanson was accepted.
Looking ahead to future missions beyond STS 117, Swanson hopes one day to dock at the International Space Station and stay for six months. He relishes the opportunity to work as a part of an international crew, and feels confident he could handle the physical and psychological challenges of such an assignment.
“At NASA I have a job I love. I’ve been given a chance to see what lies beyond our own planet,” he says. “In human nature the concept of exploration is innate. I can’t think of anything I would like to do more.”
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